Amish Mafia: When Reality TV Finally Jumped the Shark

Move over Honey Boo Boo. Now somebody calling himself Lebanon Levi, a kind of Amish Tony Soprano, has arrived for his 15 minutes of fame. From the show’s official description:

Untrusting of outside law enforcement, some Amish in Lancaster County, PA have for many years regularly turned to a small organized group of men for protection and justice. A sneak peek of Discovery’s new series Amish Mafia, which provides a first-ever look at the men who protect and maintain peace and order within the Amish community in Lancaster, will air Tuesday, December 11 at 10:30 PM ET/PT. The series will premiere Wednesday, December 12 at 9:00PM ET/PT.

The 2006 School shootings in Lancaster County during which five young Amish girls were killed and five more seriously injured by a non-Amish milk truck driver brought to the nation’s attention the vulnerabilities of the Amish community, and their need for continued protection.

When you think of the Amish, buggies, bonnets, peace and simplicity come to mind. In the historic Amish settlement of Lancaster, protection and “peace” can come at a price.

Lebanon Levi is the Amish insider who holds the power and serves as protector of the community for a price. He exists above the law and occupies the role of police, judge and jury. Levi’s team engages in a life outside of Amish and non-Amish community codes as he quietly exerts his influence and control. Levi’s brand of order is precise as he seeks to keep outside forces from infiltrating the Amish community, while keeping the principles and morality within the community in check.

Levi’s team is lean and fearless. Alvin is Levi’s right hand man and nobody gets to Levi without going through Alvin first. A lifelong friend, Alvin is at first glance an average passive Amish community member. However, he has a dark side, a past, and most importantly, Levi’s complete trust. Alvin will protect Levi at any cost.

At the beginning of every episode of Amish Mafia the producers admit that they utilize “select reenactments” in order to protect the innocent Amish. One need not watch much of the show to realize that everything is a reenactment and the documentary approach is just an aesthetic style. (Otherwise everyone involved in the show would be in jail as accessories to crimes. Stores depicted as “under Lebanon Levi’s protection” on the show make a big joke of it in real life.)

When “Reality TV” first began to rise in popularity more than a decade ago shows offered the thrill of supposedly “real people” overcoming real challenges out in the real world — not predictable, fictional characters in familiar scenarios with laugh tracks. But Amish Mafia amounts to little more than a sitcom shot in documentary style.

The show’s success speaks to culturally secular America’s continued need to wallow in criminality, the fantasy of vigilante justice, and the subversive thrill of blurring the sacred and the profane. If even a pious people like the Amish can’t get by without a corrupt thug-in-chief like Lebanon Levi to dispense his own brand of “justice,” then what hope is there for the rest of us?


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